Column: Suarez makes historical mark for himself, NASCAR
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Bubba Wallace is the face of NASCAR diversity. Daniel Suarez plays an equally important role.
His road to NASCAR first stopped in upstate New York in the dead of winter. His English was limited and most of Suarez’s racing had been at lower levels in Mexico. But a K&N Pro Series team owner had offered to mentor him, so here Suarez was in Buffalo. In January.
He was back home in Mexico in a matter of months.
Suarez returned to the United States the next year only this time he headed directly to North Carolina, the hub of NASCAR. His English was still a struggle, but the Nicolas Cage movie “Gone in 60 Seconds” with subtitles helped him with both the language and American culture.
Roughly nine years after he left Mexico determined to make it racing stock cars in America, Suarez last weekend b ecame the first Mexican in the Fox Sports broadcast booth for a national NASCAR race. To signify the occasion, Suarez called a lap in Spanish — a well-meaning crossover cut short by an untimely caution.
“Tenemos una bandera amarilla!” Suarez called. “Caution is out, amigos.”
This was a historic moment for NASCAR, which since its 1948 founding has struggled to add diversity. NASCAR was born from a need to organize the auto racing boon fermented by bootleggers and World War II mechanics who returned home with the skills to build race cars.
NASCAR participation was almost unanimously white men and outsiders were rare. Elias Bowie in 1955 was the first of just eight Black drivers to race at NASCAR’s top level; Sara Christian ran in the 1949 Cup debut and remains one of only 16 women to compete at NASCAR’s top level.
An official diversity and development program didn’t launch until 2004 and its success is sporadic. Only four top names have made it to the Cup Series: Aric Almirola is American-born but of Cuban descent, Kyle Larson is Japanese-American, Wallace is the only Black driver racing full-time in NASCAR and Suarez is the only Hispanic national champion in NASCAR history.
Suarez has had a weird ride. He was groomed in Toyota’s development system and was carving out a career at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won the Xfinity Series championship in 2016.
He’s now with his fourth team in four years and that rocky road makes Suarez something of an afterthought.
Wallace this past year became both a prominent figure in the nation’s racial reckoning and the face of NASCAR’s efforts at diversity. Suarez champions the NASCAR system that got him to the Cup Series but isn’t often showcased as a diversity program success.
And yet the driver who barely spoke English when he moved to Charlotte in 2012 nine years later was at Phoenix Raceway as part of a national broadcast in the language he learned partly from watching action films. Fox Sports had planned to use Suarez for the first time last season in its popular “Driver-Only” annual production but it was canceled in the pandemic.
Suarez is expected to be part of the 2021 driver-only team but Fox Sports accelerated his network debut last weekend by giving him a coveted slot in the booth.
His time with the microphone came as Suarez attempts a major reset on his career. JGR and Stewart-Haas Racing both pushed him out of the seat for other drivers and Suarez spent last year driving for a back-marker start-up team that failed to qualify for the Daytona 500.
This year brought a fresh opportunity with Justin Marks, a former driver who has transitioned into a team owner. Trackhouse Racing aims to make “a positive impact on and off the track” while “solving the most important equation – turning negative to positive.”
Marks brought on entertainer Pitbull as part owner, which makes Suarez and Pitbull the only Hispanic driver-owner combination in NASCAR. This year Michael Jordan joined 23XI Racing to combo with Wallace in the only Black driver-owner pairing.
Pitbull uses the NASCAR platform to promote his “One race, one race only, the human race” platform and partnering with Suarez broadens the reach to a demographic NASCAR covets. There are not reliable current statistics showing what percentage of NASCAR fans are Hispanic, but NASCAR has tried to expand into Latin America and Suarez graduated from those efforts.
He remains to this day committed to the journey he began in 2012 when he recognized, “I’m the only Mexican, the only Latino in NASCAR, the only guy that can speak Spanish. If I don’t try to do something to bring Latinos to the racetrack, who is going to do it?”
He’s established a fan club called “Daniel’s Amigos” for his Hispanic fans to unite and understands that on-track performance is critical to his mission. The team has had a rough start through its first five races — Suarez was one of 16 cars crashed out of the Daytona 500 on the 13th lap — and his highest finish so far was 15th at Las Vegas.
Trackhouse has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing, which gives Suarez the best cars and support he’s had since 2019 in his one season with SHR. This year is an opportunity he won’t let slip away, and proved his commitment in the second race of the season on the road course at Daytona.
Suarez said he has a delicate stomach and began feeling ill from his pre-race lunch. He felt dizzy driving the car and vomited into his helmet; it was on his visor and down his firesuit.
He didn’t say a word about it over the radio, continued the race and finished 16th.
“If I give up on my team, I’m giving them an opportunity to give up in the future, and I don’t want that,” Suarez said. “I was feeling very bad, but I never even thought about stopping the car. It was not an option.”
Suarez and Trackhouse are committed to their larger initiatives and it opened an opportunity for engineer Jose Blasco, a native of Mexico City, to provide pre-race analysis the last two weeks to Fox Deportes. Trackhouse crew chief Travis Mack is expected to be suspended for this week’s race at Atlanta for a lug-nut violation and Blasco could get the promotion that would make Suarez the first Hispanic Cup driver with a Hispanic crew chief.
“Bring the community together and to bring more Latinos to this racetrack, to this team,” said Suarez, “make this team something different. Something young. Something cool. Something modern. That’s something we are trying to do.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer